That’s not in my job description… ESOL and Employability

We all have stuff we do which isn’t in our job description. At least explicitly, anyway. It’s usually covered by some sort of “and anything else which comes up as and when” clause in the contract, but it’s not explicitly stated. We might IV some coursework, clear out a cupboard, run a training workshop for our colleagues, that sort of thing. And about ninety percent of the time we don’t mind doing these things, sometimes because it makes a bit of a change, sometimes because it looks good on the CV, and sometimes it’s just because someone has asked us nicely to do it, and we are decent human beings.

But there are other things which we might get asked to do which present complex moral issues, one of which has been nagging at me, although I’ve only had the briefest of experiences of this side of things. It’s to do with provision for job seekers, where the learners have been formally referred by the job centre to ESOL. It’s the issue of sanctioning.

OK, before I go much further, a quick explanation for any non-UK readers. In the UK, the primary welfare support for an individual without a job, but who is able to work, is called Job Seekers Allowance (JSA). It’s on its way out to be replaced by something else soon, but as a frame of reference, JSA will do: the processes will probably be very similar. In order to keep getting JSA you have to come into the Job Centre (or JobCentrePlus, as it is officially and tackily known) to sign on and claim the benefits. Failure to sign on equals failure to get benefits. This being the UK public sector, of course, there are targets to be met by all involved. One of these targets, and the wording here is very important, is around reducing the number of people claiming benefits. This is one of those cases where you can see the flaw with target-driven culture, of course. The reasoning flows as follows: When someone starts working, they stop claiming benefits. So, the number of people who stop claiming benefits = the number of people who have jobs, right? So the measure of the success of a Job Centre becomes the number of people who stop claiming benefits.

Sorted.

You know I’m being sarcastic, don’t you? The reality of this situation is that people stop claiming benefits for all sorts of varied, complex reasons, meaning that the measure is profoundly flawed. It also means that the advisors in Job Centres, most of whom, I am sure, are hard working, dedicated individuals who are there because they want to help people, are under pressure to meet these targets. And when you start exerting pressure, particularly target driven pressure of this sort, the people at the sharp end, who may or may not be able to meet their personal target of X many people off JSA each month due to factors wildly behind their control, are buggered.

Anyway, against this backdrop (of which I admit my own analysis is both simplistic and sensationalist) we set the ESOL teacher. One of the ways in which people can be forced off JSA is by failing to meet certain personal targets or engage with particular activities which will support them with the process of looking for a job. There are, of course, horror stories about such sanctioning of benefits, but when we as ESOL teachers become involved in that sanctioning, it creates a bit of a challenge.

On one level, it is really quite straightforward. We teach adults, and adults are, usually, aware of the possible consequences of their non-attendance in ESOL classes. In principle, I am not going to be complicit in lying to the benefits office by saying that someone is attending classes when they are clearly not. You come to classes, you know the consequences of not attending. The end.

Actually this isn’t the interesting bit. The interesting bit is the role in which the teacher is now cast.

I have a story, word of mouth, friend of a friend. This is absolutely not a story based in my experiences and nor is it related to my employer. It involved a man who was attending a job seekers ESOL class. He was a single father whose child attended a school near his home, starting at 9am. His ESOL class started at 9.15am on the other side of the city, probably about 20-30 minutes by bus. This meant, of course, that he would be, on a fairly regular basis, about ten minutes late for class. Now, here is the crucial bit. The problem is not the provider, who have their own pressures, nor the crumminess of the whole situation. The really important part of this anecdote is that he didn’t feel he could talk to the teacher about this, because he thought the teacher would land him in trouble.

Digest that for moment, and think about the mental and emotional shift. Put yourself in the boots of his teacher. Don’t think about what you would have said if you had been his teacher and if he had spoken to you because that’s not important (and I think I know what you would have said). Think about the fact that he didn’t want to speak to you because of what you represent. Think about who you want to be as a teacher and what learners in this context may see you as. A bad word from you and the learners in question could be starting down a path towards genuine, full on, no money for anything poverty. Is your classroom a safe place for learning or is it something darker? What is the power relationship here?

In my mind, at least, as a teacher, you are a supporter and a carer, an adviser, counsellor and even, sometimes, a friend. You are also primarily an English teacher, and part of that process of teaching English is to lower those affective barriers, reduce the stress in the learner, engage and involve them. Is this still something which is easily managed in this context?

It’s not a thought I am comfortable with, and I suspect that I am not alone, either. Pragmatics, of the non-linguistic type, suggest that we have no choice but to take on this role, or at least come to some compromise middle ground in which we can live more comfortably, perhaps. I hope we don’t have to end up taking the hard route and abandoning principle.

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